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Legislative Update August 2008

RAIL SAFETY LEGISLATION

The big news this month is the Senate’s passage of H.R. 2095, the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008, by unanimous consent on August 1, just before adjourning for a month-long recess. The Senate bill basically substituted the text of H.R. 2095 with the Lautenberg-Smith amendment, which is similar to S. 1889. There are few differences between the amendment and S. 1889, but the funding levels were changed to accommodate the objections of Senator Coburn. The bill will now go to a Conference Committee to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation.

When Congress returns after Labor Day, a joint House-Senate conference committee will work out differences in the two bills and return a final version for both chambers to approve. It is anticipated that President Bush will sign the final measure given its bipartisan support.

This is the most significant rail safety bill in over two decades and a huge victory for all of rail labor. Thanks to everyone who worked on the bill as well as everyone who helped by making phone calls and writing letters asking for its support.

  1. 294,ThePassenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act

 

S.294 was passed out of the House on July 22 and sent to the Conference Committee, along with their appointees. Due to an objection by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), majority leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) attempt to appoint the Senate’s conferees was stalled and remains blocked.  Sen. Coburn and the Republican leadership state that they will only vote on their proposals for oil drilling. The minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has vowed that the Republicans will block S. 294 and many other pending bills until the Senate concedes to their demands. They are now on recess and home in their Districts. If you have a Republican Senator, now is a good time to give him or her a call to explain that, with current gas prices, and congested highways adding to our dependence on foreign oil, any further delay of S. 294 jeopardizes the oil conservation efforts that the expansion of fuel-efficient passenger trains would represent. Amtrak ridershipcontinues to increase every month. This legislation promotes expanded passenger train service, including long overdue funding for capitol and infrastructure needs. Request that the Senate allow S.294 to move to a speedy conference and final passage. Point out the irony in their delays and the inherent oil savings realized in train travel. We are all either railroad retirees, or headed in that direction, and our annuities depend on a solvent railroad retirement system. Remind the Senator’s staff that Amtrak and its workers pay into that system. Explain that the Railroad Retirement System covers retirement annuities for railroad employees and we do not draw from Social Security. You’d be surprised at the number of legislative staffers (even new House Reps & and Senators) who are not aware of this distinction. If they support the growth of jobs in the U.S., then they should pass S.294.

  1. 3360,TheCreating American Rolling Stock Act of 2008
  2. 3360, also known as “The Train Cars Act,”was introduced on July 29 by Senators Durbin (D-IL), and Carper (D-DE), to increase the availability of American made rail passenger cars. This bill aims to promote the replacement and rehabilitation of Amtrak’s aging fleet of passenger cars and to revive the train car industry in theUnited States. The bill provides for immediate funding for Amtrak to expand its fleet, addressing the critical shortage of railcars to meet growing demand. It would allow for states to be involved in a federal matching grant program for funding purposes, for acquiring new equipment, and all new procurement would be subject to “BUY AMERICA” and certain labor provisions. Sen. Durbin states that the Dept. of Labor will be required to assist workers from the declining automotive and aviation industries, helping them acquire jobs related to the “manufacturing, rehabilitation and maintenance” of passenger trains.

FRA PROPOSES RULE TO RAMP UP ROADWAY WORKER PROTECTION PROCEDURES

The FRA has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking targeted at protecting roadway workers from train or equipment movements on an adjacent track. The proposed rule would require railroads, contractors, and roadway workers to adopt and comply with additional on-track safety procedures covering a wider range of operational conditions. The rule would apply to work groups using certain maintenance equipment and instances when at least one worker is on the ground and the centerline of an adjacent track is 19 feet or less from the centerline of track being worked on.

The FRA also proposes to expand requirements for job safety briefings, training, and recordkeeping to ensure compliance with new procedures.

Under current rules, roadway workers engaged in a large-scale maintenance or construction project must be provided with adjacent-track safety in the form of a train approach warning.

Since May 2004, four rail workers have been killed on a track adjacent to one undergoing maintenance.

NEW DOT DRUG TESTING REQUIREMENTS

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters announced a new Drug and Alcohol Testing Final Rule, published June 25, and scheduled to become effective on August 25, will make it more difficult for transportation workers to cheat on their required drug tests by requiring drug testing labs to analyze every test for tampering.

Of particular concern is new Section 40.67(b) if that rule, which would require that railroads — among others — “must direct a [urine] collection under direct observation of an employee if the drug test is a return-to-duty test or a follow-up test.” The new direct observation standard set forth at Section 40.67(i) requires railroads to “request the employee to raise his or her shirt, blouse, or dress/skirt, as appropriate, above the waist; and lower clothing and underpants to show, by turning around, that they do not have a prosthetic device [that could be used to deliver a substituted urine specimen].” After the railroad has “determined that the employee does not have such a device, [it] may permit the employee to return clothing to its proper position for observed urination.”

It is the position of the BLET that the “return-to-duty” and “follow-up” tests referenced in the Final Rule are limited to those that are required subsequent to either a positive or an invalid drug test. However, the Final Rule is less than clear in identifying that these are the only tests to which the new requirements apply.

BLET National President Ed Rodzwicz stated: “The possibility that a BLET member who has a clean drug testing record could potentially be exposed to an outrageous violation of his or her privacy is intolerable. We have been in consultation with other affected Labor Organizations, federal officials, and other interested parties, and we intend to have this question clarified long before the Final Rule takes effect. We also are reviewing the Final Rule in its entirety and considering what other options may be available to us.”

SEN. JOHN F. KERRY PROPOSES TO INTRODUCE LEGISLATION TO PROVIDE $1 BILLION FOR HIGH SPEED RAIL

An article from the July 15 edition of the Boston Herald reported that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry criticized Amtrak’s Acela train, which is supposed to provide high speed transport of passengers between Boston and Washington, saying it is too slow and riddled with speed and safety issues. The 8-year old Acela train travels from Boston to New York in about three hours, while ordinary trains and buses take about four hours. The train is designed to go 150 miles per hour, but it only goes at that speed for about 18 miles. The reason the train can’t travel at the speed for which it was designed is partly due to the fact that the bridges and tunnels along its route are unsafe because they were not designed for high speed rail. Another factor that slows the train is the curvature of the track; however, straightening the tracks along the heavily developed eastern rail would trigger many eminent domain takings.

Sen. Kerry has stated that he will soon introduce legislation to provide $1 billion in funding that will target out-of-date bridges, tunnels, and tracks and would give power to the states to improve the rails, making it possible for decisions on eminent domain to be made at the state or local level.

SENATE APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE INCREASES FY 09 FUNDING FOR FRA, AMTRAK

On July 10, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and related agencies, approved Fiscal Year 2009 legislation, which includes significant funding above the President’s request for the Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration, and Amtrak.

The Committee approved $66.8 billion for the Department of Transportation, which is $2.1 billion above the FY 2008 enacted level and $3.3 billion above the President’s request.

The Federal Railroad Administration has been appropriated $1.816 billion, or $254 million over FY 2008, and $725 million over the President’s request.

The Committee approved $1.55 billion for Amtrak, which is $225 million above FY 2008, and $750 million above the President’s request.

The Committee also approved Capital Grants for Passenger Rail. The bill provides $100 million for capital assistance to States to help initiate state-supported passenger rail services and eliminate hindrances to improved or expanded passenger rail service, including Amtrak.

HOUSE AND SENATE OVERRIDE PRESIDENT’S VETO OF THE MEDICARE IMPROVEMENT FOR PATIENTS AND PROVIDERS ACT OF 2008

HR 6331, the Medicare Improvement for Patients and Providers Act of 2008 was introduced in the House on June 20. It passed in the House on June 24 and in the Senate on July 9. On July 15, the President vetoed the bill; however, on that same day, the House and Senate both voted to override the veto. If the scheduled cut in payments to physicians had gone into effect, the existing shortage of doctors willing to accept new Medicare patients would have been dramatically reduced.

Amongst other provisions, this legislation temporarily blocks a scheduled 10.6% cut in payments to physicians from Medicare. The bill instead imposes a freeze on pay cuts for the remainder of 2008 and grants a 1.1% pay hike to physicians for 2009. It also focuses on providing coverage for preventative care, mental health care, and those who live in rural areas of the country.

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